It's tough to know what to make of Wednesday night's Champions' League semifinal in Barcelona. A lot of people would claim it brought out the worst in the game. Could be, but I deeply admire Inter Milan's resolve. Inter lost 1-0 on the night but moved into the Champions' League final regardless.
In a two game, total goals format, Inter led 3-1 after the first game last week in Milan. Barcelona were forced to attack on Wednesday.
It was 0-0 after 27 minutes when Inter's Thiago Motta put his arm out to shield Barcelona's Sergio Busquets from running through him. Busquets bumped into the arm and fell down as if he'd been shot, then flopped about like an electric eel to get the referee's attention.
"[Busquets] always does it, I have seen it on TV and he is holding his face and then looking at the referee - it is terrible behavior," Motta said after the game. The referee showed Motta a red card; Inter would have to play the last 63 minutes a man down.
All Inter did the rest of the way was defend. Whenever Inter got the ball, it was hoofed downfield. Inter manager Jose Mourinho's nickname is "The Special One" and this was indeed an unusual game plan: "We didn't want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position - I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn't want us to have the ball, we gave it away," the Special One told reporters.
So there you have it: everything that's wrong with soccer. One player baits the ref with a ridiculous dive, and then the other team refuses to try to score. Watching the game, however, I thought it was excellent drama. The stakes were huge.
2-0 would have been enough for Barcelona: if the two games ended 3-3 overall, Barcelona's road goal would break the tie. So Inter decided to try to keep goals out and gave up on going forward. It was a calculated risk, and it worked. The tension continued to build as each minute ticked off the clock and Barcelona fired shot after shot.
At some point, as the game remained 0-0, I expected Barcelona's men to drop their heads in frustration, to point fingers at each other, and lose focus. It never happened. Barcelona stuck to the task. Everything boiled when Pique scored for Barcelona with six minutes to go. Barcelona would need only one more. Inter held shape, however, and hung on 'til the end.
It wasn't beautiful, but it was masterful. It's not a match worth watching twice; the enjoyment lay only in the unknown ending. It's one of this season's unforgettable games, and the only one I watched through my fingers for the final ten minutes as the suspense ramped higher.
The Special One and his men take on Bayern Muenchen in the one-game final in Madrid on May 22. The site of that game is the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, nicknamed the "Cathedral of European Football". The final is often a dry, one-sided game. Soccer fans around the world will be praying for something great.